Kathy Hochul

Could Kathy Hochul defeat Chris Collins?

One reason Hochul isn’t jumping into the congressional race: it’s a Republican district.

It seems that Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn’t very determined to keep Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul on the Democratic ticket. Last week, he undermined Nate McMurray, the candidate endorsed by the suburban Buffalo district’s Democratic Party county leaders to challenge Rep. Chris Collins, by suggesting that Hochul would be the better candidate to face the Republican incumbent.

“There is a very strong feeling that Kathy Hochul would be a great congressional candidate for that race and that she would be the strongest Democrat,” Cuomo said, adding that it was “no secret” many in New York were advocating for Hochul to run for her former congressional seat, which she held for one term until she was defeated by Collins in 2012.

However, even if Hochul were a stronger candidate than McMurray, it’s not certain that she would be strong enough to topple Collins.

It would be difficult for any Democrat to win in the district, which leans Republican and has enthusiastically supported President Donald Trump – as has Collins, the first congressman to endorse Trump in 2016. Collins is a prominent surrogate of the president, and according to FiveThirtyEight, votes in alignment with Trump’s agenda 98 percent of the time.

James Battista, a professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, said that Collins likely sees his relationship with Trump as an advantage in his district, which the president carried by 24 percentage points in 2016.

“Presumably he has a good sense of his district,” Battista said, noting that there is not yet any polling gauging the sentiment of voters on the ground.

The redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census made the seat more Republican-leaning, which precipitated Hochul’s loss in 2012. There are now over 180,000 active registered Republicans in the 27th Congressional District, which includes the suburbs around Buffalo in Western New York, as opposed to just over 140,000 active Democratic voters.

Although Hochul only lost to Collins by just over 1 percentage point, Collins won with more than 71 percent of the vote in 2014, and with 67 percent of the vote in 2016. The seat is not even listed on the Cook Political Report, which rates congressional seats that are may flip parties, and is rated as “safe Republican” by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball ratings and “solid Republican” by Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales/Roll Call.

At the moment, it seems unlikely that Hochul will seek a comeback bid. In an interview with City & State in March, Hochul said that she was “diametrically opposed” to Collins, and that she had a “problem” with “the things that he has done to hurt my old district that I loved.”

However, Hochul has denied that she is leaving the ticket, and said that she finds it easier to achieve goals in the lieutenant governor’s office than from Washington. Potential replacement candidates, like New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, have said they would not be running for lieutenant governor. Even Cuomo has conceded that she is uninterested in running for Congress, saying that speculation is “moot because Kathy Hochul doesn’t want to run and it’s her decision.”

If Hochul did decide to take the plunge, she may have an advantage over McMurray, who is the Grand Island town supervisor, due to her name recognition and fundraising experience.

“We know she knows how to run a congressional campaign,” Battista said. “It’s not that she has any inherently better skills (than McMurray) but she would likely be able to tap into a better network.”

McMurray was predictably annoyed with Cuomo, later saying about himself in the third person, “sooner or later Albany and DC will realize, ‘Don’t underestimate Nate.’” He also tweeted out his displeasure.

If Hochul did jump in the race, she would only have a few short months before the June 26 primary. She may also be deterred from running because her previous race against Collins was defined by particularly nasty politics with personal attacks on both sides.

To the extent that a Democrat could have a shot at Collins’s seat, the party’s nominee may be less important than a Republican who isn’t Collins: Donald Trump. Democrats who are fired up against Trump, and therefore Collins, will turn out regardless of who their party’s candidate is.

In recent elections across the country, from the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia to the special congressional election in Pennsylvania, Democrats were propelled to victory in part because of suburban voters who were dissatisfied with Trump. Many expect the 2018 midterm elections to be a “blue wave,” so national headwinds are in the Democrats’ favor.

National polls, however, show the Democrats’ lead in party preference slipping. Polls also indicate Democrats reporting the same likelihood that they will vote this November as Republicans. This is actually considered good news for Democrats, because midterm elections tend to favor the GOP due to the older, whiter, wealthier skew of the smaller off-year electorate.

Although suburbia can include a large share of swing voters, less populated areas may be more fixed in their Republican leanings. Collins’ district encompasses the Buffalo suburbs, but it also has covers more rural areas. “The question of the district is what’s the balance between people in the suburban areas who find Trump dreadful and embarrassing versus the balance of that district who are more classically Rust Belt voters,” Battista said.

So if Hochul ran for Congress, her hopes could be dependent upon voter sentiment around Trump – trading one race where her fate is tied to that of a more powerful man for another.

Editor's note: After publication it came to our attention that the deadline for registering for the Democratic primary had already passed. There are, however, other ways Hochul could run, including as the Democratic nominee. For our full run-down of the possibilities see here